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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Review: Who Gets In And Why - A Year Inside College Admissions

 Who Gets In And Why is a book about the perennial topic of interest amongst Asian parents - college admissions. It takes a pragmatic, market-oriented approach to college, and basically divides colleges into Buyers and Sellers.

Sellers are the brand name colleges that everybody knows the names of, with big endowments and no problem getting students who are accepted to enroll. What this means is that those colleges do not have to discount their tuitions, and even if you got in, the price tag might be higher than you expect from all the marketing you hear about "Need-Blind" admissions:

the euphoria of Wellesley’s acceptance was followed by the disappointment of its financial aid offer. Grace didn’t receive a dime. In my terms, Wellesley is a seller. Nearly half of the students who are accepted end up enrolling. It’s prestigious enough and desirable enough that four out of every ten undergraduates pay its $75,000 annual price tag. As a result, financial aid from its $2.1 billion endowment is based mostly on need. (kindle loc 3664)

Buyers, on the other hand, can't count on a high number of accepts attending, and don't have huge endowments:

 Compare, for example, two private universities in upstate New York. Colgate University, with a sticker price of $72,000 per year, accepts just over one-quarter of applicants and spends less than 1 percent of its financial aid on merit-based discounts. Colgate is a seller. But just up the road in Troy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with a nearly identical sticker price, spends one-quarter of its institutional aid budget on merit-based aid. Yet both schools attract top-tier students with average ACT scores of 32...Buyer institutions don’t “craft” an incoming class the way sellers do. Buyers “make” their class by enticing students to apply, usually through an application process that is as simple as posting to Instagram. Then they enroll students by offering hefty discounts on their sticker price using what are euphemistically called merit scholarships. One of the schools at the fair, Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, hit their enrollment target of 640 incoming students in 2019 only by offering discounts that averaged around 70 percent. With that coupon, the typical freshman paid around $14,000 of Susquehanna’s advertised $48,000 sticker price for tuition. (kindle loc 840-849)

 Effectively, the entire college game in the USA is rigged in favor of the elite colleges. Of course, what that means is that the entire process is as opaque as possible, with some schools trying to become sellers by trying to reject more applicants. As a result, you get more students applying to more colleges, and that drives down admission rates:

Several urban universities, including New York University, Boston University, and the University of Southern California, also transformed themselves from locally focused commuter schools to international brands. This re-sorting is largely why today’s admissions process seems so intensely competitive and anxiety-ridden to parents who went to college in the 1980s. It’s not that there are so many more top-notch students applying to college; it’s that the top ones from Los Angeles and Chicago and Atlanta and Buffalo are now all applying to the same selective schools. And they’re applying to way more of them. (kindle loc 652)

 Selingo, of course, can't break out of his own American-centric and cultural blinders. For instance, he claims:

When the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans in 2019 about eight admissions criteria colleges should consider, grades and test scores topped the list, by far, well above athletic ability, race, or first-generation and legacy status. The reality is that by using only those two measures there are simply many more qualified applicants than there are spots at any selective school. Think about this: of the 26,000 domestic applicants for admission to the Class of 2019 at Harvard, 8,200 had perfect grade-point averages in high school, 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, and 2,700 had perfect verbal scores. But Harvard had only about 1,700 spots to offer. (kindle loc 1379)

But of course, that's completely artificial: an examination of the way other countries' university system does admits, for instance, would indicate that the problem  is with the lack of nation-wide standardized testing that's rigorous. Few parents in China or India (or even Canada or Germany) would complain about their admissions process the way Americans complain about theirs. Their examination standards are high, and hardly anyone ever scores a perfect score on their exams. In fact, at the end of the book Selingo finally admits that the US system is inferior in both social equity and in the social goal of actually education all students who can contribute to society with the benefit of a college education:

In the United States, prestige in higher education is measured by how many students a university rejects. While the philosophy on Wall Street is that growth is good, within higher education the prevailing wisdom is that increased size comes at the expense of academic quality and reputation. But that philosophy isn’t shared across the globe. In Canada, for instance, the three most-prominent universities—the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia—enroll nearly 150,000 undergraduates. That’s more students than the top twenty-five U.S. universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings combined. Even as the number of full-time undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities has grown, enrollment at the nation’s most-selective and elite institutions has barely grown at all. There have been a few, modest exceptions. Stanford enlarged its freshman class in 2016 by about a hundred students. Yale expanded the class entering in 2017 by about two hundred students, the first expansion at Yale in forty years. They should expand the size of their incoming classes even more, and so too should the rest of the Ivy League and other top universities. (Kindle Loc 3993)

 There's a lot of detail in this book, some of which has also been leaked in recent years especially about legacy admits, the Asian penalty, and why athletic admissions are much more of a sure thing than regular applications:

For athletes, getting into a selective school is a matching game played with coaches rather than a lottery played with the admissions office. Athletes and coaches must first find each other and be a good match. Once that happens, the coach becomes the applicant’s guide and advocate, assisting him through the admissions process...Georgetown allocates about 158 slots out of 1,600 in its first-year class to coaches in twenty-two sports. Bucknell holds 170 slots out of about 970 seats in the class. The University of Virginia earmarks 180 slots out of 3,700 spaces in the class...At Amherst, another 60 to 90 admissions spots go to “coded” athletes with top academic qualifications, but who the report noted are “admitted at a much higher rate than the general admission rate” for nonathletes with similar qualifications. In all, that means Amherst dedicates somewhere around 157 admissions spots to athletes a year—when the total incoming class is only about 490 students. By making room for so many athletes, Amherst makes it so much harder for everyone else to get in. It rejects nearly 9,000 students from a pool of 10,000 applications. Like most elite colleges, Amherst is trying to become more racially and socioeconomically diverse. But its athletic teams are largely white and hook was stronger in assisting the prospect of an applicant than athletics. The study revealed that minority and legacy applicants got a thumb on the scale, while athletes received a whole fist. If the average applicant had a 40 percent chance of admission to one of the schools based solely on test scores and other variables, that student’s probability for getting in skyrocketed to 70 percent if he was an athlete. In other words, an athlete was about 30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a nonathlete with the same academic record. (kindle loc 2377-2447)

And for those who're eyeing this approach, Selingo notes:

 The fastest growing high school sports for boys are fencing, volleyball, and lacrosse; for girls, it’s lacrosse, fencing, and rifle. (kindle loc 2437)

 All I can say is with this amount of insanity in the process, it's astonishing that US colleges still have the reputation they do, rather than becoming denigrated as the cesspool of corruption and outright bribery that they actually are.

In any case, the book was great and if you have kids who might attend college, it provides good tips and interesting insights.

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